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Children / Mama Drama / Motherhood

Mama Drama: Sibling Rivalry and Playtime Struggles

Dear Mama Drama,

I recently took my 6 and 8 year old daughters to a pumpkin carving contest. It is a wonderful family event that focuses more on community than competition, but the pumpkins are judged and there are winners. My 6 year old won and my 8 year old did not.  At first, the 8 year old was very supportive of her sister, but then she started crying. When we finally got to the root of the problem, she was upset that she had given her sister ideas and that her sister had won and she didn’t.

This sibling competition expresses itself frequently in negative ways in our family and I am unsure how to react or what to do about it.  Growing up most of my life as an only child, I really don’t understand and am not very sympathetic to sibling rivalry.

How can I encourage my children to be loving supportive sisters and discourage them from being self-centered and competitive?

~Seeking Harmony

Dear Seeking Harmony:

Sibling rivalry is a normal part of growing up with brothers and sisters, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have that harmony you are seeking.

Spending time getting to the root of the problem, as you did, is a great start for helping your girls understand their thinking and emotions. Children need time to process what has happened and an understanding adult to walk them through it. We can often see the bigger picture, whereas they are in the middle of it and can only see what is right in front of them. Strong emotions also make it more difficult to think rationally about the situation. Giving them time to cool down will lead to more productive conversations.

The next step is to try anticipate when these situations may arise and pre-plan with your girls. For example, prior to any type of contest or competition, you could talk about the possibilities that might occur. One of them may win, both of them may win, neither of them may win. Have a conversation about how they might feel in each of those scenarios and discuss strategies for how to handle those feelings when they occur. Role playing can be very helpful as it provides the opportunity to practice the language they can use.

You may need to come up with some phrases for them such as, “I’m happy for you, sister, but I am sad that I didn’t win. I wish we could both have won.”  And for the winner, “Thanks for helping me and being so supportive. You worked really hard, I wish you could have one, too.” You can tailor the statements for the specific event and circumstances, but having some generic statements that can be used in any situation can also be helpful.

The lessons of good sportsmanship can be applied in many arenas of life. It is important for children to learn both how to be compassionate and appreciative winners as well as gracious losers. The world offers many examples of both appropriate and inappropriate responses to competing, winning, and losing. When attending or watching sporting events or other competitions, make an effort to point out to your girls how different people handle themselves and how you think it is positive or negative. From the player who beats his chest after a touchdown as though he alone was responsible, the swimmer who makes sure the race doesn’t start without her competitor who is struggling with her suit, the temper tantrum a famous tennis player throws when she disagrees with a call, to the handshakes and hugs between opposing teams at the end of a hard fought game. These examples are very powerful and add a concrete and visual image to their understanding of how to be a good competitor.

Sometimes your girls will do really well and sometimes they will struggle. Acknowledge them when they handle the situations well, re-teach and problem solve with them when they don’t. This is a challenge they will face their entire lives. Teaching them these skills now is a tremendous gift you can give them.

Dear Mama Drama~

Maybe you can help???  I have a son who is a little over two years old.  About 6-9 months ago, he started pushing and hitting other kids.  He is normally a fairly gentle and very sensitive little boy so this behavior has been really confusing for us.  It didn’t necessarily coincide with any major event in our family and I would like to think that our care and love has been strong and consistent.  We started by telling him no and distracting him and moved to timeouts and then, on the advice of our pediatrician, began to give more attention to the victim.  The hitting happens at various times.  Sometimes it is quite obvious where I’m on the phone so he hits me or another child near us for attention.  Other times he hits children at the playground when he doesn’t want them to go down “his” slide or if a child takes something away from him at a play date.

Timeouts don’t really bother him and I’ve tried taking away toys as a consequence but he could care less.

We are completely out of ideas and at this point I’m scared to take him to the playground or on play dates for fear of ticking off every mom in my neighborhood.  I am ready to hear anything that you have to say no matter how hard it might be to hear.

~In need of help

Dear In need of help:

It sounds like you have tried a lot of good strategies and have identified that some of your son’s behavior is motivated by his desire for attention. Other behaviors seem developmentally typical, such as the perception that the slide is his, but he doesn’t have the language or skills to handle the situation successfully. Most of your interventions seem to be focused on telling him that his behavior is not okay, which is important, but the piece of the puzzle that may be missing is teaching him what to do instead. This is a commonly missed step by parents and professionals.

Two year olds they are usually beginning to talk more and often appear to have more skills than they do. Even though they have been taught social skills many times, they have not mastered them. Two year olds are struggling to figure out what is mine, what is yours, what is ours, and how all that gets decided. When emotions are high, language skills decrease and hitting often results.

When children misbehave, it is important that we teach them what behavior we want them to use instead. Research shows that children need to be exposed to information thousands of times before they master it. Think about how much language a baby hears before he or she is able to speak.

The first step is to label your son’s intention for him and teach him what you want him to do. Put yourself in his shoes and try to figure out what he is wanting from the situation. For example, when your son is clearly seeking attention, tell him, “You want my attention. Pat me gently on the arm and then wait. I’ll show you I know you are waiting by holding up one finger.” You’ll need to model for him both what a gentle pat is and what waiting looks like. Then pretend to be busy and have him practice several times. Re-teaching if you need to and recognizing what he has done when he has followed your directions. You’ll need to follow through by showing him your “one minute” index finger and then taking a break to give him your attention.

This teaches him how to get attention appropriately in any situation and also shows him how to politely ask for a moment when he is interrupted. The next time he seeks attention appropriately, congratulate him for patting you gently and waiting. The next time he forgets and hits someone, re-teach your expectation. “Remember, when you want attention, pat my arm gently and wait. We keep our hands safe and our friends safe.”

These same steps can be followed for the issues with peers. Use a variety of tools to teach the social and problem solving skills you want him to use. Notice other people making kind choices. Read and tell stories that focus on social skills. Engage in imaginative play with him involving social skills and problem solving. I’m not a big fan of television or videos for kids, but if you choose wisely, limit the length of time, and watch with your son, you can find some great lessons to watch and discuss in many public television shows, Thomas the Train videos, and other shows or short movies.

Before heading for a play date, it is important to practice situations that may arise for him. Pre-teaching and pre-planning will help your son be aware of the situations he may encounter and be prepared for them. Once you are at the play area, stay nearby your son to monitor and support him. Model and give him the language to use when you see he needs support. Anticipate things with which he may struggle and give a positive reminder, “Remember, we share the slide with everyone.” Acknowledge his specific behavior when he follows through with appropriate social skills, “Thank you for sharing the shovel with your friend.” Re-teach the expected behavior when he struggles, “Tell him ‘my turn, please.’”

At first keep the playtime short so he has a better chance of being successful. However, be prepared to leave early if he is really struggling. Stay calm and tell your son, “This seems too hard right now, we’ll try again next time.”

When the playtime is over, share with him the safe choices and the effort you noticed. Be specific when recognizing these behaviors so he knows exactly what he did well. Even if he has had a difficult time, be sure find a few positives to share with him. Over time he will need less close supervision and begin to initiate these skills on his own. For now, though, he will need a lot of support to learn, practice, and master these skills.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! All emails and identifying information will remain confidential.

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  1. What a concisely written and positively productive column! I absolutely agree from experience with your solution to #2 and I look forward to using your suggestions in #1 if we have a second child. Thank you!

  2. Thanks so much for your positive feedback, Alison. Glad the column is helpful.

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